Brick by brick

A commission to make a scale model of the world’s tallest building led to Australian firm Modelcraft establishing a base in Dubai, a move that has since reaped the business untold benefits across the broader region

When the management of Emaar properties were looking for a company to bring the architectural splendour of their new project to life – the world’s-tallest-tower Burj Khalifa – they faced a dilemma. The North American and European consultants that were involved in the property all had other projects in the UAE, so in order to maintain confidentiality, what was needed was an outsider.

Matt Roche is CEO of Modelcraft, which brings new property developments and other presentations to life, either digitally or by creating physical models – or by using an interactive mix of the two. At the time, his business was based in Sydney, which he says, from Emaar’s point of view, was “remote enough to keep a low profile but also advanced enough to provide the world class service that they needed”.

A tantalising phone call was the herald of what was to become a whole new life. Roche recalls: “Emaar’s development director picked up the phone during a management meeting, and I remember taking the call myself. He spent a few minutes explaining what they were doing, and why he was calling me, and then gave some clear advice: ‘Do not say yes if you can’t do it!’ Clearly they’d worked with consultants in the past that had underestimated the size of projects in Dubai.

“Well obviously we said ‘yes’, and it was the best three letter word I have ever uttered. Within a week the design details for the Burj Khalifa were on my desk. That first order placed by Emaar turned out to be the second biggest contract we had ever undertaken, and their second order [Dubai Marina] became the biggest.”

Up to that point Modelcraft had not sold internationally, although they had worked for a lot of Australian clients – architects – who took the firm’s products overseas.

The order book from Dubai was still growing quickly when the number one client, still Emaar, “strongly suggested” that Modelcraft open up an office in the  emirate. It did so in 2005, and Matthew Roche, his wife and two children moved to Dubai – where his third child was later born, in Al Wasl Hospital.

Since it started operating in Dubai, Modelcraft has worked on a vast array of projects creating digital and physical models for a range of local clients. These include Business Bay for Dubai Properties; Meydan for Dubai Racing Club; The Waterfront, Palm Island and Trump Tower for Nakheel; The Arabian Canal and Downtown Jebel Ali for Limitless; Dubai Marina for Emaar; Dubai Festival City for MAF and Dubai Pearl; and Dubai Maritime City.

Roche says that, initially, the firm underestimated the business opportunity offered by a base in Dubai. “When Emaar said we should open, I had no fear about a lack of local work flow to sustain the business. We assumed that we would do lots of work in Dubai and maybe a little in its near neighbour Abu Dhabi. Well, we were wrong. At the first exhibition where we participated, Cityscape, in 2005, we were greeted with an abundance of enquiries from all over the MENA [Middle East, North Africa] region… and the subcontinent. Indeed 80 per cent of our inquiries were international, and from outside of the UAE: from India, Pakistan, Saudi, Bahrain and Qatar, and even Southern Europe.

“We soon realised that in the same way Emaar had been looking to Australia for world-class services, these neighbouring countries and cities looked to Dubai.

“What was great was that we did not have to prove our credentials to these customers… as far as they were concerned if we were operating in Dubai, and working for firms like Emaar, then we had already proven ourselves. To this day that hasn’t changed.”

For example, the Government of the Seychelles later came direct to Modelcraft in Dubai and the firm was not required to give credentials or prove its capability. “We were already considered a proven supplier.”

Modelcraft is now in a very strong position to take full advantage of its first-class reputation, throughout the Gulf and internationally, and today it has expanded well beyond the UAE, although the regional headquarters, and the central functions and support, remain in its offices in Dubai Investment Park.

“Nearly all of our business is now regional,” says Roche. “The hotspots are India, and Saudi Arabia – and we have opened an office in Riyadh. We have also opened in Shanghai to expose us to Asian markets, and Qatar is looming large.”

Roche is also hugely proud of the fact that the firm has worked with Renzo Piano and Sir Norman Foster on their landmark towers in Sydney (Aurora Place and Deutsche Bank Place respectively).

The Modelcraft team has a range of skills. “We often find ourselves hiring dissatisfied architects, and they have become a core component of our teams in both digital and physical model generation,” Roche explains. “I say ‘dissatisfied’ because these guys are often unhappy with the constraints of their profession, whether those come from the client budgets, difficult consent authorities or engineering limitations. With us they often get to spend more time in the virtual world, and seem to find this a lot more satisfying.

Roche says that despite living in the digital age, there is still a strong demand for a physical model, as well as the digital version. “You may think that people want either a physical model or a digital version, and that the model-makers and digital guys compete, but most of our clients still want both, regardless of whether they think that they need it!”